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By David Allen - Inland Valley Daily Bulletin - April 14, 2004

No false notes from Jack Mercer, Ontario's Music Man

JACK MERCER introduced yours truly to a roomful of people recently by noting genially that sometimes he loves this column and sometimes he hates it.

As we'd just met, his assessment was an eye-opener, but I had to like his candor.

Mine may be a typical reaction to Mercer, who led the Chaffey High School marching band in Ontario for 26 years. His ex-students mostly seem to love him -- despite, or maybe because of, the way he got under their skin.

Like a drill sergeant, Mercer enforced order in relentless practices, barking orders through a megaphone. (Maybe he thought he was leading a rowing team.)

From his perch in the stadium stands, he would squint angrily when he spotted a mistake, looking a little like Popeye. They were the Tigers, but he was the one who roared.

As a father figure to a couple of generations, his wrath pierced like a father's, too.

"If you did the routine right, he would applaud loudly," Rob Branson, a Chaffey snare drummer in the 1960s, told me. "If you didn't do it right, we'd be out there to midnight with no lights, marching around the track, even if the sprinklers came on." Branson added, almost with a shudder: "We dreamed about him."

Maybe it was love-hate, but the love prevails. On Monday, Chaffey High's music building was named the Mercer Music Hall, and hundreds of fans came out to Gardiner W. Spring Auditorium to salute Ontario's music man.

Given all the years he spent in the Chaffey band room, this may have touched him more deeply than when the Euclid Avenue bandstand was named for him in 2001.

Mercer arrived in Ontario in the summer of 1958 after stints as a band director in Michigan, Illinois and Iowa, heading west so his wife, Jane, could pursue a doctorate.

Within weeks, Mercer's band won a sweepstakes trophy at the San Bernardino County Fair -- the first of seven straight wins -- and Mercer was on his way.

His band grew to 250 members, with an equal number on the drill team. (Let me note that none of them played the accordion.)

They performed at pro football games, sometimes getting national TV exposure, and at parades and tournaments all over Southern California. Heady stuff. Imagine marching onto the field at the L.A. Coliseum before 50,000 fans as a teen-ager from Ontario.

Suddenly being a band geek doesn't seem so bad.

How did Mercer's bands come on so strong? He chalks it up to California's low standards. "Iowa bands are very energetic," Mercer told me, explaining his training. By contrast, California bands tended to stay on the sidelines with little movement. "We came out, we were all over the place, doing everything, spitting nickels," Mercer said. "The crowds went crazy."

Indeed, a video of Chaffey's patriotic routine at the 1965 Pro Bowl is still startling. The Tiger band and drill team in human formation spelled out "EAST," then "WEST," then "NFL," before assuming the outlines of a church and -- believe it or not -- a swastika, which was absorbed by the church, leading into the squad's big finale: arranging itself into the letters "USA."

Hey, it beats out Janet Jackson's breast.

Mercer was driven partly by Ontario's ever-increasing expectations -- "a marching band is really the designated representative of the community," he says -- but largely from pride.

"I had the biggest ego you ever saw in your life," Mercer told me -- and isn't it just like a braggart to assume his ego is greater than anyone else's? "I was addicted to the applause," he added.

He drove himself like he drove his bands. Over his 26-year tenure he took two sabbaticals to recharge his batteries, traveling around the country to interview band directors and -- with the help of Jane, his wife of 58 years -- producing books on how to survive and prosper as a band director.

When he retired in 1984, the music program was still a winner, but its strength had been whittled due to post-Prop. 13 budget cuts from which it's never recovered.

Now he conducts the Ontario-Chaffey Community Show Band, an adult orchestra that performs each month except for August and September. It was launched in 1985 by former students who begged him to come out of retirement and lead them.

He says the band saved him from a dull retirement, or worse, and besides, waving his arms is all he knows. "Adults are beautiful people to work with. You only have to tell them once," Mercer said. "In high school, you have to beat it into them."

And they loved him for it.

[David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, a 3/7 tempo. E-mail, call (909) 483-9339 or write to 2041 E. Fourth St., Ontario, CA 91764.]


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